Rumors about Apple building a very large iPad have been unavoidable for seven months. But does a giant iPad make sense?
Other companies have tried to sell large-format touch tablets, but these have been universally rejected by most consumers.
So are the rumors really true? And, if so, what is Apple planning?
The giant iPad rumors
A Korean publication called ET News started a rumor on May 28 that Apple was testing an iPad with a 12.9-in. screen, measured diagonally. (Apple's current biggest iPad models have 9.7-in. screens.) That screen size is roughly the same size as some laptops, including Apple's 13-inch iPad Air. (The blog iMore.com posted some accurate comparisons showing just how big a 12.9-in. iPad would be.)
That report was based on information from parts suppliers, according to the article. English-language publications picked up on the rumor, emphasizing the larger size but de-emphasizing the stated purpose for the tablet: the U.S. education market.
Still, the report was dismissed as a flaky rumor until July 22, when The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple had been testing for months significantly larger screen sizes for both the iPad and the iPhone.
Although the report was considered reliable, the news in fact was that Apple was testing, not planning, larger-screen iPads.
Then, The Korea Timesreported Nov. 19 that "an official at a local Apple supplier in Korea" told the newspaper that the 12.9-in. Retina screen for the iPad was already in production in preparation for a launch "sometime next year." The source intriguingly said that Apple's larger iPad will be the first to boost picture quality higher than current Retina displays and that it will be "almost ultra high-definition (UHD)," also known as 4K.
That claim, by the way, is consistent with a report by the DisplaySearch blog, which wrote in October that, "based on supply chain research, we believe Apple is planning to revamp nearly all of the displays in its products over the next year."
Earlier this week, DigiTimes, a Taiwanese trade newspaper for the Taiwanese and Chinese electronics industries, reported that October 2014 is the target launch timeframe for a 12.9-in. iPad "targeting North America's educational market." (Note that DigiTimes rumors and predictions are often wrong.)
Still, an October release makes sense for an education market product, as many U.S. school budgets are typically finalized in January or February.
What doesn't make sense is this: Why would Apple target its largest tablet at people with the tiniest hands -- schoolchildren?
Why little kids need big iPads
Microsoft has fumbled the transition badly, introducing the tablet-like user interface formerly known as the Metro UI or Metro Design Language in Windows 8, but likely to scale that back and even return in future releases with the old Start button and menu.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has a full line of post-PC desktop systems originating in both its own PixelSense project and also in Perceptive Pixel, which Microsoft acquired in July 2012. These systems, however, are high end and expensive, sold to governments and corporations for mostly vertical applications, rather than consumers.
Apple has been more conservative, opting instead to introduce more tablet-like features in each new release of OS X, mostly in the background in ways that don't directly force users to confront these features.
So how do you transition from the PC to the post-PC world on the desktop? One option is to start with education.
In interviews I've conducted with teachers and other educators about classroom technology, the issue that keeps coming up (and one universally ignored by the tech press) is that sending kids out the school-house door with expensive electronics like iPads is irresponsible in the extreme -- it makes children targets for mugging and theft.
I find it very hard to believe that schools would buy 12.9-in. near-4K quality tablets and let kids take them home in their backpacks. That's why a 12.9-in. iPad for the education market makes sense only if it's designed to be used in the classroom exclusively, essentially as a desktop computer.
Lots of schools are buying iPads for kids to use. But iPads don't make a lot of sense for education. For starters, their screens are too small for the kinds of interactive textbooks and apps that Apple wants the education market to create. They're also too small for collaborative work. iPads run mobile browsers, rather than full browsers, so kids can't use the full range of HTML5 sites or, reversing that, education content creators don't have the full toolbox of HTML5 capabilities when creating online education apps knowing that many schools use iPads.
Although many school districts are smitten with Apple and iPads, and Apple does a great job of selling into the education market and always has, some in education tell me that Google's Chromebooks are more compatible with the needs of schools and teachers.
The Chromebook Pixel has a Retina-quality display (Retina is an Apple marketing term that Google doesn't use), a full, physical keyboard and an interactive touch screen. It also has a full-featured browser. Unfortunately, at $1,300, it's too expensive for most schools.
Cheaper Chromebooks without high-resolution touch screens are more affordable, but less compelling as content platforms.
Other Chrome OS products are coming on the market that may be even more attractive to schools. LG, for example, plans to unveil at the CES trade show Jan. 7 a new desktop Chrome OS device called the Chromebase. Like the Apple iMac or the Dell XPS One 27, the LG Chromebase is a desktop all-in-one, with all the processing electronics built into the display housing. (The Chromebase will have a 21.5-in. widescreen HD display.) LG is targeting education, as well as other markets.
There will be other Chrome OS products shipping this year, no doubt.
The Chromebook idea should be very compelling for schools because it supports pretty much everything that exists on the web. Best of all, apps are served up from the cloud, so the administrative hassles and support costs are far less.
Still, the Chromebook isn't ideal for schools, and neither is the iPad.
The bottom line is that neither Apple nor Google has come up with the perfect solution for education. But the battle for the future of education is likely to be between whatever Google turns the Chromebook into against whatever Apple turns the iPad into.
I think the idea of a 12.9-in. iPad optimized as a desktop touch computer for education solves two of Apple's biggest transition problems.
First: How can Apple make iOS the default platform for schools transitioning from paper textbooks and educational materials to electronic ones?
Second: How can Apple gently transition the world from desktop PCs to the desktop post-PC world?
It seems likely to me that Apple will ship a 12.9-in. iPad designed for desktop use for the education market, but display it in Apple stores for at least a year to create demand before coming out with even bigger models for consumers.
In other words, it makes more sense to think of a 12.9-in. iPad not as next year's latest and biggest iPad, but next year's first and smallest iOS desktop computer.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.